Friday Reviews: The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin

The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve SheinkinThe Notorious Benedict Arnold

Steve Sheinkin

I listened to this fascinating short bio on audio, which really made it come alive. Benedict Arnold is, of course, synonymous with “traitor” in the English-speaking world. The man is remembered for selling out the American Revolution. Americans despised him in his lifetime, and the British never really trusted him. But Sheinkin reveals how closely Arnold could have come to standing alongside George Washington in the nation’s historical pantheon.

So what went wrong? The easy answer is that Arnold was an impatient, foul-tempered egotist who could not handle the politics of the day. Some would say greed was his sole motivation. But Sheinkin reveals that the story is much more complicated than that. Arnold was, indeed, vain, thin-skinned, and impulsive. He was also brilliant, independent-minded, and dedicated to the American cause. He could count Washington among his many admirers, and Benedict Arnold, given the equipment and troops needed, could very well have made Ontario and Quebec part of the fledgling United States. He was so good at warfare that even the British admired him.

Until…

A series of political slights, back-stabbing by certain fellow commanders, and Arnold’s own abrasive personality combined to keep him from earning the promotion to Washington’s second-in-command that even His Excellency thought he deserved. However, rather than learning to manage the vagaries of early American politics and letting Washington work behind the scenes on his behalf, Arnold gave up in a fit of anger and approached Major John Andre about defecting, giving the British the fortress at West Point and General Washington in the deal. The plot would see Andre hung and Arnold living in exile for the rest of his life.

Sheinkin ultimately condemns Arnold for his betrayal, yet it is hard to come away from this biography without some sympathy for the man. As much blame lies with a fractured Congress, with opportunistic generals such as Ethan Allen, and even the British as it does Arnold.

You may end up still despising Arnold, yet you can’t help but understand what drove him to the dark side, loathed by both America and Britain for the remainder of his life.

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5 Presidents Who Hated The Job

Presidential sealBeing president is a sweet gig. The White House staff is at your beck and call. You have Air Force One to take you anywhere in the world on short notice, no TSA lines at the airport. And let’s face it, it’s still the most powerful political office in the world.

But sometimes, the job ain’t what’s it’s cracked up to be. At any given time, half the nation thinks the president is wrong and is evil, no matter how popular he is. Some, like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, let it roll right off their backs. Others, like Nixon, couldn’t wait to get on Marine One and get the hell out of DC. Most men, however, enjoyed the job, including Nixon. A handful didn’t. In fact, five in particular hated the job as soon as the finished taking the oath of office. Who were they?

Andrew Johnson5. Andrew Johson

Lincoln’s second vice president was chosen for several reasons. As the Civil War drew to a close, Lincoln wanted a Southerner and a Democrat to unify the nation and make it easier to reconcile North and South. Johnson, former military governor of Tennessee and the only Southern senator to refuse to give up his Senate seat when his state seceded, was perfect from a campaign standpoint. Like Lincoln, Johnson was self-educated and self-made. Unlike Lincoln, he was a slave owner, though the Emancipation Proclamation did not exactly break his heart. Johnson hated the planter class so much that the end of slavery meant sticking it to the man. But…

He did not begin his vice presidency very well, showing up for his oath of office drunk off his ass and giving a rambling, incoherent speech to the Senate, which did not exactly go well with Lincoln’s famous With Malice Toward None speech happening outside at the same time. On the night Lincoln was assassinated, someone also tried to kill him. (The would-be killer chickened out and was hung weeks later.)

Senate impeaches Johsnon

“Wait. Impeachment? But who’d give him a blow job?”

Then the fun really began. Johnson, hotheaded and stubborn, originally wanted to seek revenge on the fallen Confederacy, yet another dig at the planter class. However, after about a month in office, Johnson decided that Lincoln’s plan of gentle reconciliation while adjusting newly freed slaves to life as citizens was the best route.

Congress wasn’t having that. Just to make a point, they passed a silly law called the “Tenure in Office Act,” which said that the president not only had to consult the Senate to appoint his cabinet, he had to consult them to fire them, too. This brilliant piece of stupidity set Johnson up for a fall. Johnson fired the combative (and let’s be honest, self-important) Edward Stanton as War Secretary. Congress, dominated by revenge-minded Radical Republicans, responded by impeaching Johnson, the first president to have been tried in the Senate. Johnson survived by a single vote.

He got his revenge, though. In 1875, Tennessee returned him to the Senate.

Warren Harding4.  Warren G. Harding

Warren Harding was a likeable senator from Ohio who was one of the handsomest men in the country at the time. And that was the extent of Harding’s qualifications for office. Oh, he liked the presidency well enough. It had a perk that would more famously be used and abused by Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton in later years:

Sex in the Oval Office. Harding famously quipped after becoming president, “It’s a good thing I’m not a woman. I’d be pregnant all the time.”

However, Harding also had the most corrupt cabinet of the early twentieth century, possibly since Grant’s cabinet in the 1870’s. His attorney general, Harry Daugherty, engineered Harding’s campaign, beating out much more qualified candidates such as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Theodore Roosevelt’s confidant, General Leonard Wood. However, Daugherty had a plan.

Bill Clinton

“That man is still the coolest president ever.”

Harding was so likeable and docile that it would allow Daugherty, Albert Fall, and several others to loot the nation’s land holdings for cash. Ultimately, this resulted in the Teapot Dome Scandal, which embarrassed Harding. At one point, he said he wasn’t worried about his enemies, it was his friends who kept him up at night worrying. He’s also rumored to have said “This fucking job’s going to kill me.”

As he embarked on a tour of the nation to restore his reputation (and get out of Washington), he admitted he was in over his head and should never have run for president.

The job did, in fact, kill him. Harding died of a stroke in 1923. Calvin Coolidge, with no loyalty to anyone but the more talented members of the cabinet, took the oath of office, came back to DC, and fired the Ohio Gang.

Chester Alan Arthur3.  Chester Arthur

Here’s a man who never expected to be president. In fact, he intended to spend Garfield’s first term in office in New York, minding his investments. Chester Arthur never held an elected position in his life. Instead, he was the rare honest cog in New York Senator Roscoe Conkling’s political machine. Conkling saw himself as the Henry Clay of his time, wheeling and dealing, making things happen. However, Clay was considered honest, likeable, intelligent, and level-headed. Conkling was an asshole.

Nonetheless, Arthur made the patronage jobs Conkling procured for him work to the advantage of both Conkling and the nation. As a reward, Conkling strong-armed the Republican Party into making him Garfield’s running mate. Garfield and Arthur actually never met until inauguration day, and Arthur only came to Washington to cast tie-breaker votes.

All that changed when Garfield was shot in the back by a man who, in modern times, would probably be sitting on a city street with a cardboard sign and rambling incoherently. And Garfield might have survived if his doctors had not botched his treatment. The president actually died of infection, not the bullet itself. (Which, kids, will not get you off when you shot the bullet that caused said infection.)

Conkling saw Arthur’s ascendancy as an opportunity. He proceeded to instruct Arthur on how to run his White House. Arthur instructed Conkling to go to Hell. It ended Conkling’s political career. The new president was so disgusted by the disrespect given the presidency by office seekers that civil service reform, which would dismantle the very system that made Arthur president, the centerpiece of his administration. How bad was it? One office seeker waltzed into the White House (because you could do that back then), plopped down in front of “Chet’s” desk, and put his feet up on the desk, telling “Chet” what office he wanted. Arthur told him to put his feet on the floor and address him as Mr. President.

"Told you I was sick."The job took its toll. Arthur came into office with Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment caused by high blood pressure. By the end of his term, he was so ill that he almost could not do his job. However, he put up a token campaign to win the Republican nomination in his own right. Fortunately for Arthur, they nominated James G. Blaine to run against Grover Cleveland. Arthur died only months after leaving office, completely unable to work. So like Harding, the job killed Arthur.

William Howard Taft2. William Howard Taft

Few men came to the White House as qualified as William Howard Taft. Governor of the Phillipines and Cuba, supervisor of the Panama Canal project, Secretary of War and Theodore Roosevelt’s confidant, Taft was the logical man to carry on Roosevelt’s policies. Only Taft didn’t want to be president. He wanted to be on the Supreme Court. Taft started his career as a lawyer, then a judge before William McKinley plucked him out of Cincinnati to run the Civil Service Commission. So why did this man who loved the law run for president?

First, Roosevelt asked him to run. Fair enough, but he needed one more reason to do it. He had it. His wife wanted to live in the White House. Can you think of a better reason to run for president?

Taft was not the healthiest man to sit in the Oval Office. Beset by weight-related issues such as sleep apnea, he would fall asleep during cabinet meetings. It’s also rumored that he got stuck in the White House bathtub and had to be buttered to get out of it. It gets worse.

"In what universe does the progressive movement work?"

“In what universe does a ‘bull moose’ make a good president?”

His own party derided him for not being progressive enough. It got so bad that Roosevelt decided to run again in 1912, which told Taft that Roosevelt saw him as keeping the Oval Office chair warm. The battle between the two became so bitter and protracted that it all but guaranteed the election of Woodrow Wilson, the Sheldon Cooper of presidents.

Taft and Roosevelt eventually patched up their differences. In 1921, Harding made Taft a happy man by naming him to the Supreme Court. There, as Chief Justice, Taft excelled, overhauling the federal court system and moving the judicial branch of the government to its own building by the 1930’s. In all that time, Taft never spoke much about his time as president. To him, it was an interruption in his legal career.

James Buchanan1. James Buchanan

Like Taft fifty years later, James Buchanan came to the White House more qualified than most of his predecessors. Secretary of State. Minister to Britain and Russia. A long-time Pennsylvania congressman and lawyer. His resume screamed president.

Queen_Victoria_by_Bassano

“We find Mr. Buchanan fabulous!”

He also was likely our first gay president. While Buchanan never confirmed the rumors that swirled around him, particularly while he roomed with senator and vice president Rufus King, he did little to convince anyone he wasn’t gay. He would also be our only bachelor president. Others would come to the White House married, widowed, or would even get married while in office.

So a guy that comfortable with himself and with a resume like his would be the perfect guy to keep the nation from flying apart on the eve of the Civil War. Right?

No.

Buchanan stuck to the tried and not-so-true policy of appeasing the South. This idea cost Franklin Pierce his presidency, and Buchanan only succeeded in angering both sides. His handling of the crisis over admitting Kansas as either a slave or free state resulted in aggravating the civil unrest there. And then South Carolina seceded.

carriage

“Later, bitches!”

Buchanan took the odd (and untenable) position that secession was illegal but that the federal government could not do anything about it. In other words, it became official policy to sit on his hands until Lincoln came into office. On the way to Lincoln’s inauguration, Buchanan said to the new president, “If you’re as happy to be coming to the White House as I shall be leaving it, you are a very happy man indeed.”

Back In The Old Days, Cars Came Only With AM And FM. And A Cassette Deck. And A CD Player. And We LIKED It!

Northland VW in Cincinnati, Greta's previous owner

Northland Volkswagen

This past weekend, I noticed a number of car ads featuring blind spot warnings, anti-collision systems that slam on the brakes, and, of course, the Cadillac’s that combine backup cameras with warning radar. What struck me is which models had this technology. While Cadillac is still a luxury brand, it’s often a harbinger for things to come for Chevy, Buick, and GMC. But the blind-spot warnings? Kia, the budget-priced line from Hyundai. Anti-collision braking? Subaru. Cars you or I might expect to own. I’m surprised Greta (the 2011 Jetta pictured left) does not have any of this yet, given that Volkswagen’s engineering rivals that of Benz and BMW (with the odd-for-Germany distinction of being easily reparable.)

But the Jetta has antilock brake that don’t feel like antilock brakes. My previous three cars had antilock that made you feel as though you were rolling over rough ground. I’ve had two occasions to slam on Greta’s brakes. The Jetta clearly has antilock, but it actually feels like brakes being slammed. The calipers and drums squeeze so fast that it’s clear the car is not going to go into a skid. At the same time, it doesn’t feel like it’s going to send you flying through the windshield despite the seatbelt catching.

What struck me was how far we’ve come with cars. My first car, along with all the cars my dad owned up until the 1990’s, was a rear-wheel drive with no antilock (such things were about ten years into the future or only on expensive cars like Mercedes or BMW), no air conditioning, not even a cassette deck. My first car stereo was a boom box that I got very good with swapping tapes while flying down the freeway at 70 mph (long before Ohio had a 65 mph speed limit.) I didn’t own my first front-wheel drive car until about 1994. Every car I’ve since owned has had a tape deck or a CD player or both. Every car I’ve owned since 1999 has not had a spot of rust. Some of that is because I could afford newer cars, but at the 100,000 mile mark on the odometer, the cars had little if any rust at all on them. The body of my dad’s Taurus (a car I still miss despite its blandness) was still rust-free when I got rid of it.

57 Chevy

Photo by vegavairbob, Creative Commons

My dad’s first car was the classic 57 Chevy. A friend of mine in high school restored one. The car was a stick shift, which was standard up until the 1990’s. It had a heater and no air conditioner. Had the car been sold in the South originally, Detroit would have left out the heater. It did not have power steering. It didn’t have power anything. It would have reminded me of the Yugo had the cars not been so solidly built. Thousands of cars from that era still prowl the roads of Cuba fifty to sixty years later. But think about what came before.

Turn signals, invented in 1907, did not become standard until just before World War II. Between World War I and World War II, we had cars that had to be started by crank instead of key. The choke, a part that no longer exists on most modern cars (fuel injection, you know), had to be manually operated.

Softeis, Creative Commons

Softeis, Creative Commons

Before World War I? Cars were basically carriages with a primitive gasoline engine, sometimes electric, mounted underneath. The steering wheel? Sometimes it was a stick. Cars at the turn of the twentieth century were like PC’s in the 1980’s. There was no standard way to make one. No two looked alike. Even when cars began looking like the modern enclosed machines we know today, only the passenger seat in the back was enclosed. The driver, usually a hired driver since such vehicles were luxury items, sat out in the open.

xeno.org, Creative Commons

xeno.org, Creative Commons

But if you really want to get primitive, you have to go back before Henry Ford, before the first Oldsmobile, before Daimler and Benz mounted the first gasoline engine beneath a horse carriage, all the way back to 1769, before the United States even existed. French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot mounted a steam engine, then an experimental technology much like today’s electric and plugin hybrid cars, on an artillery wagon, inventing the first viable automobile. There is evidence of a Jesuit priest building one in China about a century earlier, but the vehicle was too small for a passenger or driver. Cugnot built several for the French army. Two years later, one of Cugnot’s vehicles crashed into an arsenal wall, causing the world’s first traffic accident. Cugnot was fined for the incident, which gives him the dubious distinction of the world’s first traffic ticket.

Cugnot’s contraption needed to be constantly refired, had very little power – less than a lawn mower – and was hard to steer and brake. Now? Radar and self-stopping cars. Some parallel park themselves. Almost no one learns to drive stick anymore. Stereos, air conditioning, power steering, and power windows and locks are all standard. Some cars don’t even use keys anymore. And now we’re ten to fifteen years from hydrogen-powered cars and self-driving vehicles.

Friday Reviews: Meet the Beatles by Steven D. Stark; Read the Beatles by June Skinner Sawyer; Revolver: How the Beatles Re-imagined Rock and Roll by Robert Rodriguez

This semester, I have a cultural studies class called 50 Years of The Beatles. So I read all three books for the class. You get to read the reviews.

Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band That Shook Youth, Gender, and the World

Steven D. Stark

The first book is a straight-forward history of the band in terms of their cultural impact. Stark goes from The Beatles first days as the Quarry Men where they were very much like The Monkees who poked gentle fun at them later. They weren’t very good and often lacked a drummer. But when Paul McCartney and John Lennon formed a partnership, something sparked, solidified by the addition of George Harrison. Their biggest problem was keeping a drummer. They often performed without one, and it would be 1960 before Pete Best and the future Ringo Starr (who started out covering for Best occasionally) would provide stability behind the kit (and, more importantly, the kit itself). Best and Stuart Sutcliffe are often remembered as The Beatles who lost out. While Best was ousted (mainly through the prodding of George Martin and Brian Epstein), Sutcliffe lost interest, drawn more to art. However, their role is almost as important in finishing The Beatles as the arrival of Ringo. (Best, it should be noted, was the only former Beatle to attend road manager and Apple CEO Neil Aspinall’s funeral, the others represented by children, one ex, and Yoko Ono to prevent the service from becoming a circus.)

Stark then proceeds to elaborate how The Beatles phenomenon caused a cultural shockwave. They were the first somewhat androgynous rock stars, well-dressed and rather asexual compared to the raging machismo of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and, to a lesser extent, Buddy Holly. Their encounter with Bob Dylan led to chemical and lyrical experimentation that only enhanced their popularity, which in turn made them trailblazers in the counter-culture.

On the downside, Stark is rather uncharitable to The Beatles’ efforts after their breakup, is dismissive of Abbey Road, and has a bit of a bias against Paul McCartney in his role in the band’s end. Everyone puts the blame at least one of The Beatles, except maybe Ringo. He also ignores the closeness that remained after the breakup. John and Paul made several attempts to bury the hatchet, potshots in the press aside, and George Harrison was extremely distraught over Lennon’s murder.

But where Stark shines is showing where The Beatles came from and why they were who they were. John, Paul, Ringo, and, Stark adds, Pete Best were all from homes where one parent had died or abandoned them. George came from a hard-working blue collar family who saw his efforts with The Beatles as an extension of their Liverpool roots. Moreover, the importance of Stuart Sutcliffe’s presence, particularly his influence on John Lennon long after his death in 1961, becomes crystal clear.

Read the Beatles

Edited by June Skinner Sawyers

Read the Beatles is a different kind of history of the group. Editor Sawyers collects 52 essays from all corners, kicked off with a foreword by Astrid Kirchherr, the band’s ardent supporter in their Hamburg days and girlfriend of original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe. The essays range from speculation (“The Afternoon Hours” by Jim O’Donnell, a fictionalized account of John and Paul’s first meeting) to eyewitness account (Jim Kirkpatrick’s piece on George Harrison’s first ever radio appearance in America) to fanboyish (Christopher Porterfield’s Time Magazine essay practically drooling over the band’s output and position in culture.)

It’s the interviews that give the best account of The Beatles. Gloria Steinem conveys a sense of confusion after meeting the human whirlwind that was the pre-Yoko John Lennon.More poignant is Lennon’s last interview, give only 48 hours before his death. Perhaps more poignant was the inclusion of a poem by Paul McCartney where he is barely able to convey his grief over the loss of his former partner.

There is, however, an annoying tendency by the critics in this collection to dismiss the Beatles’ solo efforts as lacking or pale shadows. Also, one essayist seems miffed that Abbey Road is as beloved as it is. Despite firsthand accounts by three of The Beatles (Ringo is criminally underserved here.) stating that the breakup was almost inevitable after Sgt. Pepper, many of the writers are very much guilty of asking the same question Robert Plant summed up about Led Zeppelin later. “Where’s my ‘Whole Lotta Love, Parts 2, 3, and 4?” They seem to want Sgt. Pepper, Volumes II, III, & IV. Even if they had stayed together, a 1970’s Beatles would have sounded vastly different from even Abbey Road. (Ironically, the most Beatlesque former member these days is Pete Best, whose output sounds like a fresh take on Beatle co-conspirator Jeff Lynne.)

What really sells the collection, though, is the final essay by music writer Toure. Toure writes about discovering The Beatles as a kid, which seemed odd to him as he is black. But while the racial angle provides a unique perspective on The Beatles, Toure came to the group the same way I did, becoming aware of them after they broke up. The only Beatles tune I remember when it was current was “Something,” which may explain my fondness for Abbey Road. But Toure compares those who grew up watching The Beatles grow into an institution to his early adulthood and Michael Jackson’s rise and fall. Jackson appeared during my high school years and was the closest thing to an Elvis or a Beatles my or Toure’s generations knew.

Revolver:  How the Beatles Re-imagined Rock and Roll

Robert Rodriguez

This last book could a literary version of Sound City, only instead of a bunch of bands trying to get the sounds of their amps onto vinyl, The Beatles attempt what was never attempted before: Putting sounds that can’t be made onto vinyl. Whereas the former derides digital recording as a cheap way to cover the shortcomings of less talented musicians, the latter shows what happens when the studio becomes an instrument. Granted, much of what was accomplished on Revolver could be done in a couple of hours now using Pro Tools, the sounds on that album came about from trial and error. It’s rather telling that Paul McCartney is in Sound City, because much of his approach to creating “Cut Me Some Slack” with the remnants of Nirvana date all the way back to the experiments he did with Lennon, Harrison, and Starr.

Rodriguez also posits that Revolver, not Sgt. Pepper’s, is The Beatles artistic peak. In the first third of the book, he describes the back and forth with other bands that drove the Fab Four to higher and higher creative efforts. There were creative rivalries with the Beach Boys (Brian Wilson was insanely jealous of Paul McCartney), the Rolling Stones (who, despite their friendship with The Beatles, annoyed John Lennon to no end), and The Byrds. They also had a collective man crush on Bob Dylan.

The last third deconstructs Sgt. Pepper’s, which Rodriguez ultimately finds wanting, with the exception of the brilliant “A Day in the Life.” In between, Revolver is a music nerd’s delight, discussing such arcane things as varispeed and ADT. While the book does give insight to the band’s inner workings and politics, it dispels several myths about how the band got along in the mid-1960’s. George Harrison truly came into his own on this album, not only contributing three songs, but providing some of the glue that holds the album together. Also,the importance of Ringo Starr’s presence in the studio is brought into clear focus here. Starr was not the typical rock drummer, who are generally seen as light-headed, unpredictable, and otherwise there for rhythm. Not only were Ringo’s instincts on the drums crucial to nailing the right sound, but he also provided snippets of lyrics and melody that brought many of the songs together.

The Presidents: What About George And Barry

I’ve managed to read about the first 41 men to serve as president. It’s been a great way to look back at US history. I’m sure, though, there are some ideologues out there who wonder why I’m not using these posts to foam and froth at the mouth about George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Simple.

To look at these two administrations, especially when one of these men is still in office, usually ends up being an excuse to foam and froth at the mouth. There’s too much foaming and frothing, usually with a lot of misinformation. Then again, we are a society that thought what Phil Robertson said was really, really important. (Hint: No, it wasn’t.) The simple fact is their tenures are too recent for an objective look.

I admit I was hard on George W. Bush. It was hard not to be when we were embroiled in a war that turned out to have a dubious purpose, coupled with an exploding deficit. Likewise, Barack Obama could have cruised through an easy second term were it not for a signature program ham-strung by a poorly designed web site.

Still, in reading about all their predecessors, I’ve discovered often that, when a president screws up, the results are almost immediate. Their accomplishments, though, often aren’t noticed until years afterward.

What I’ve also discovered (and have witnessed in recent years) is that modern presidents generally take a dim view of criticism of their successors. For instance, George W. Bush, who will occasionally defend himself if he thinks Barack Obama might have crossed a line, generally frowns on those trying to bait him into attacking Obama. “He deserves my silence,” he famously said. Granted, Nixon was hard on his successors. He thought Carter was an idiot, and he never really forgave Reagan for shifting the party’s ideology. Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt had a legendary feud that kept Hoover out of the public policy loop until late in World War II. Truman eventually offered the olive branch. Eisenhower was a mentor to Kennedy. Nixon sometimes turned to Johnson for advice. Both Bushes and Clinton have worked together on humanitarian efforts.

It wasn’t always like this, though. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson did not speak for years after Adams left office, and only settled their differences in their old age. Adams’ son John Quincy Adams, made it a point to be a thorn in the side of Andrew Jackson. And William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt fought each other so bitterly, it all but guaranteed a Woodrow Wilson presidency.

But prior to the twentieth century, America seldom had more than one or two former presidents living. While the Viriginia Dynasty and Adams survived well into the younger Adams’ administration, it wasn’t until the leadup to the Civil War that we had more than three living presidents. There were a record six alive on the day Abraham Lincoln assumed office (one of whom could not wait to get out of Washington.)

Most presidents loved the job. Many did not. Buchanan, arguably the worst chief executive, was so disgusted that he told Lincoln he was happier than the new president to be leaving. William Howard Taft only ran as a favor to Theodore Roosevelt and to please his wife. He himself wanted a seat on the Supreme Court (which he later attained.) Truman and Ford both felt overwhelmed. Chester Arthur hated the job and the system that put him there virtually unelected.

But really, presidents are often only as good as the Congresses we saddle them with. Yes, I said “We.” You and I are the ones who vote for all 435 representatives and 100 senators. So some of the blame for the recent gridlock, the government shutdown, and even the more poorly thought-out parts of the ACA goes to us the people. Some of it. We’re still paying them to get stuff done, whether what the president proposes or some opposition alternative. So while we probably need to do a better job picking people to send to Washington for lobbyists to bribe, ultimately, they need to do their jobs.

Presidents don’t normally do well when their party holds Congress. It’s almost (not always, but almost) a rubber stamp on a president’s agenda with no chance for opponents to adjust legislation. However, it seems that the worst scenario is when Congress is split between parties, which is a large reason why this Congress is one of the most despised Congresses in US history.

One thing that struck me, though, was how our laws came to be. No, not the old School House Rock “I’m Just a Bill” cartoon. (Those were awesome!) The Constitution was written with a quill pen. After the Civil War, laws and amendments were typed. Now we are on the cusp of the original documents being electronic.

Another thing that’s striking is the communications presidents have had to rely on. George Washington depended on horse-and-rider. The peace offer that could have stopped the War of 1812 literally passed the declaration of war against England somewhere in the Atlantic, both taking three weeks to arrive. On the other hand, Lincoln, by necessity of a war literally in sight of the White House, was the first wired president, keeping a bank of telegraph units in the nearby War Department. Since Johnson, presidents have had satellite capability and instant links to world leaders. Barack Obama can Skype with Vladimir Putin (though they likely use something more secure for direct conversations.)

It’s been a fascinating way to look at American history.

Bill Clinton

Bill ClintonI may have gone a president too far in going through all of our Chief Executives. Bill Clinton still inspires a lot of controversy today, and not just for his dalliance with intern Monica Lewinsky. However, he did preside over the longest sustained period of growth in US history. And yes, he does deserve much of the credit.

Conservatives like to say that Clinton did nothing, that his success all comes from the efforts of Ronald Reagan paying off during his term. Most men who have sat in the Oval Office would find that assessment extremely offensive, including – and maybe especially – Ronald Reagan. There is, however, a kernel of truth. Reagan’s (and Bush’s) success stems from shattering a petrified structure that grew out of the Great Society, Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to reinvent the New Deal. Love trickle down or hate it, the freewheeling eighties could not have happened with the huge tax rates of the seventies or the burdensome regulations that contributed to the stagnation of the American economy.

That said, Reaganomics represented a course-correction, not a new vision. What Reagan did was put forth a program and challenge the nation to do better. They responded. But when capitalism has the safeties taken off (something, incidentally, Adam Smith frowned upon, since being a douchebag actually went against the ideas he put down in The Wealth of Nations), it has a nasty habit of pulling apart the middle class. Clinton sought to reinvent government, offering a scaled-down version of the New Deal while massaging the markets by slashing the deficit, a perpetual thorn in the side of George H.W. Bush. It almost did not happen.

While Clinton’s appetites later became a distraction, early on, it was Clinton’s informal management style and failure to comprehend Washington politics that almost sank his presidency within the first six months. Clinton had three goals when he took office: create jobs, slash the deficit, and reform health care. (Sounds like Obama’s mandate, doesn’t it?) This last, of course, went down in flames, resulting in little more than reforming the health insurance industry. (And no, I have no nostalgia for the HMO’s of the 1990’s.) The latter was stalled until mid-decade by discretionary spending caps, but later fueled by the tech boom. That same boom would not have been possible were it not for his biggest first-term victory, the deal to slash the deficit by $480 billion.

To look at Clinton, I read Bob Woodward’s The Agenda. Woodward paints a portrait of a chaotic White House populated by about a dozen Type A personalities from the president himself to Hillary Clinton (more an adviser and informal cabinet member than a First Lady, hence her later Secretary of State posting) to point man George Stephenopoulos to consultant (and now CNN analyst) Paul Begala. Everyone on Clinton’s economic team had their own pet projects, as did Secretary of Treasury Lloyd Bentsen (channeling the ghost of LBJ), Hillary Clinton, and Vice President Al Gore. Whenever someone had to compromise, they would loudly complain. Whereas getting a consensus served Governor Bill Clinton well in Arkansas, it bogged him down with indecision early on as president.

Eventually, Clinton found his voice, his theme, and his spine. It took counseling from none other than Richard Nixon, who told him it was fine to compromise on the deficit, but he would have to hit Congress hard in demanding any new programs. Americans, the disgraced former president said, wanted a leader.

I do remember being impatient with not just Clinton, but the Congressional leadership under both parties. The Democrats in his first two years in office proved to be a fractured and contentious lot, unable to agree on much without nearly sinking their own cause. (They would do this to Obama from 2009 to 2011.) When the Republicans took over, the government ground to a needless halt because Clinton held his ground, Newt Gingrich held his breath (and stamped his feet and whined), and Bob Dole, normally a master deal-maker, wanted to be president in 1996. Even Ross Perot, the last credible third-party candidate for president, so incensed me that, in 1996, I voted for my only write-in candidate for president, writing in Richard Lamm, who lost the Reform nomination to Perot. Yeah, I was pissed off over the government shutdown. (These days, I refuse to vote for any representative or senator who held a seat in Congress in October, 2013. Sorry, but there must be consequences. If I did that at my job, I wouldn’t even be eligible for unemployment.)

Clinton presented an affable image to the public. To admirers, he cared about the middle class and minorities. To detractors, he was a snake oil salesman. There’s truth to both views, but ultimately, his 1993 deal to hack $480 billion from the deficit by 1997 ultimately led to a budget surplus in 2001. Yes, Reagan and Bush 41 definitely deserve credit for loosening up the economy in the 1980’s, but Clinton managed to balance fiscal prudence with investment in the nation’s infrastructure, education, and technology.

Since he left office…

The deficit exploded, America has lost its standing in the world, and attempts to reinvest in America have been underwhelming. As I said in my post about the elder George Bush, something seemed to leave when our best one-term president retired. Clinton managed to pick up on it and, for a time, rediscover it, but since the twenty-first century began, leadership in Washington has been spectacularly absent in two of the three branches of government.

George H. W. Bush

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George H.W. Bush Library

George Bush had an unusual path to the White House, though not as unusual as that of Chester Arthur or Gerald Ford. No, Bush had only held one elected office, as a congressman from Houston, Texas. From there, he became Ambassador to the UN, Republican National Chairman, head of the US Liaison Office in China, and director of the CIA. The presidents who have taken office since World War II have been senators (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Obama, with Ford coming from the House), governors (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and GW Bush), and four vice presidents (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, GHW Bush), two of whom were senators before stepping one heartbeat away from the presidency.

It may surprise many to know that Bush was actually considered for the vice presidency, a job he held under Ronald Reagan, as early as 1972, when Nixon considered getting rid of Spiro Agnew, and again when Agnew resigned. Ford twice considered him (complaining later in Write It When I’m Gone that Congressional leaders twisted his arm to make Bush head of the CIA essentially to keep him off the 1976 ticket.)

Bush ran in the second election in which I was eligible to vote. I immediately liked him because, unlike so many who run for president, he struck me as a manager. He was definitely a politician. He had to be to hold the jobs he held before joining the Reagan Administration. But spending most of his career in business and in appointed jobs showed in his demeanor and his approach to domestic and foreign affairs. He would manage the country, whereas Reagan, though active and involved, also served as a larger-than-life figurehead.

What I also remember is that Bush was better suited for foreign policy – which he excelled at – than domestic. It may have been that he simply approached domestic matters with a more low-key approach than Reagan did. Bush is a Republican in the mold of Bob Dole (who probably should have been Nixon’s second vice president, though Ford did well enough.) He leaned conservative, but was more center right than he cares to admit even now.

Reading his book of letters, All the Best, George Bush, I got a sense of a man who did business in a way that Washington sorely needs to return to these days. Bush valued friendship and even sought advice from political rivals during his political career. One letter playfully needles his former opposite number on the Democratic National Committee after Bush’s posting to China.

I often say Bush came in the finish Reagan’s paperwork. Considering that he was president at the end of the Cold War, that’s a somewhat accurate assessment, but hardly a dismissal. After Reagan was shot in 1981, he became an essential part of the administration, a sort of unofficial diplomat. (“You die, I fly,” he once joked after some ribbing in the press about his frequent trips to attend funerals, where, he points out in his book, a lot of diplomacy would get done.)

But, as with Reagan, Bush saw the rough-and-tumble of politics as a sort of Sam Sheepdog/Ralph Wolf routine. Legislators, candidates, and officials would snipe in the press, then roll up their sleeves and figure out how to get work done.

There’s something missing in the way DC governs now. Clinton, who learned a lot from his predecessor, may have been the last to govern the way Bush did, but it’s something more. Bush was the last World War II vet to sit in the Oval Office. While the living presidents tend to be friendly, if not close (George W. Bush is surprisingly the most sympathetic man to Barack Obama’s woes, which should really make some of Obama’s – and Bush’s – detractors ashamed of themselves), it seems as though real civility in the White House and on Capitol Hill began dying off as the Vietnam Era generation began to retire from politics. Today’s method seems to be hold one’s breath, stamp one’s feet, and make sure nothing positive is ever said about one’s opponent.

I admire Clinton, but I suspect something very deep and very important began disappearing the day George H. W. Bush went home to Houston. Johnson, for all his crassness, showed it. Ford was the embodiment of it. Carter and Reagan did it without thinking. Bush was the last of a generation that survived a Depression and fought a war to save civilization. Today it’s all demagogues, posers, and people who are incapable of compromise, nuance, or even substance.

It died when our best one-term president in modern history left office.